The Bitter Fruits of Your Labor | How to Detach from Outcome

The Bitter Fruits of Your Labor | How to Detach from Outcome
Photo by Trent Erwin / Unsplash

To: young people with a big ego

From: a fellow young person with a big ego

My most common daydream is how they’ll be impressed. The mysterious “they” may be a him or a her or the wider faceless world. I doubt I’m alone.

It’s part of the human condition to want to be impressive, especially in Western culture. It’s in our genes to want to be popular, to be liked, and to be noticed.

You imagine what they’ll say and how they’ll be awed–by your presentation, your performance, your song, your painting, or your article. You can’t stop thinking about how they will view you in light of whatever art you bring before them.

The rush of expectation. The thrill of pride. The anticipation of ego.

It’s getting high on what they’ll think about me when they see what I’ve done. The high that drives power-hungry executives to back stab their way up the corporate ladder is the same high that drives twisted serial killers to keep murdering. They want to be recognized, talked about, seen.

Can’t ego drive good?

This mysterious force (that I’ll now refer to as ego) isn’t always used for corruption and evil.

The Good Place is a show about four people who died and ended up in “the good place” afterlife. In the last episode of season one (Spoiler Alert!), the four main characters find out they weren’t in the “good place” after all, but actually in the “bad place.” The main character, Eleanor, understands why she deserved to end up in the bad place (Eleanor was far from a saint during her time on Earth). She couldn’t, however, wrap her mind around why another character, Tahani, was placed in the bad place. After all, she had raised millions of dollars for charity. The problem was that Tahani’s motivations were corrupt. She didn’t care about the people she was helping. She was after the fame, the attention, and the applause.

Yes, the ego has driven people to success and sometimes, to perform what society would consider “good deeds”. But when ego is your fuel, its your soul that gets burned. When I’m looking for the praise, the applause, and the outcome, I’m operating from ego. The ego is insecure by nature and can only rationalize itself deeper into delusion–further and further away from reality.

Live by their approval and you’ll die by their indifference.

Disapproval doesn’t hurt as bad because it means at least they’re paying attention. Any press is good press, right? When operating from ego, indifference hurts more because it means they don’t care. They don’t notice. The ego will take it further–so you don’t matter.

The desire to satisfy the ego (which never can be) pushes us to work long hours to do projects we were never asked to do to impress people who never asked to be impressed. It leads to resentment when the person(s) we were so desperately trying to please doesn’t supply the reaction we wanted.

The Promising Fool

Ahh to be impressive. To achieve. To be strong, bright, smart, and promising. The foolish thrills of being young. To want to show them.

Cyrill Connolly said, “Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.”

When I’m operating from ego, the worst thing someone can do is call me promising. I’ll trick myself into believing I now have a reputation to uphold. Now that they know I have potential, I have to do everything in my power to not prove them wrong. This is the precise path to arrested development—doing well enough initially to show promise, only to stagnate out of fear.

Epictetus reminds us that you cannot learn that which you think you already know. If you’re afraid of looking dumber than the reputation you’ve built up in your head, you won’t ask the questions. You won’t keep learning. You’ll work to protect what little status you have.

The Antidote

The Bhagavad Gita says, “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.”

You have the right to the labor, not the fruits of it.

The antidote to ego isn’t humility. Humility may be the opposite of ego, but it is merely a byproduct of the real antidote: the practice.

In his latest book, Seth Godin describes the practice not just a habit, but a way of life. It’s showing up every day to battle the formidable resistance. It’s detaching yourself from the outcome. It’s doing the work because it might work. It might not, and that’s ok because the next day, regardless of what happened, and regardless of whether your work flopped or blossomed, you’ll return to the drawing board, the keyboard, the canvas, or the court to do it again. There’s no ego. There’s just work to be done—not because you’re important, but because the work is important.

A success is a noun, not a verb

In 2017, rock climber Alex Honnold became the first person ever to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with no ropes, no nets, and no fail safes. His journey was documented in the film “Free Solo” for the world to follow along. To no viewer’s surprise, in the end Honnold accomplishes what he set out to do–finally free solo El Captain. For obvious reasons, he’s elated. It was a massive a feat.

What struck me though was what he did afterward. A few hours after achieving what no man on Earth had ever done, he was back at his van (which was also his house), hanging from his climbing board attached to the roof of his van–strengthening his fingers for the next climb.

He has a practice. He’s not deluded about what it took to get him where he was. The last climb wasn’t going to scale the next mountain. Maybe he has superhuman discipline or maybe he just knows the truth: outcomes can’t free solo. Only people can.

Ryan Holiday puts it another way, “your last book won’t write your next one.”

The practice leaves no room for daydreaming about what people will think because it’s irrelevant. The practice requires your full attention. All that matters is the work—not work in and of itself, but the work, the art, the thing you’re called to do.

I’ll end with another favorite quote of mine from Holiday: “There is no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned in all that is around us.”

You’re more than entitled to the work, but the outcome is God’s. Don’t try to steal it from him. He’ll never let you.